In almost any field of human endeavor — football, acting, plumbing — failure has a price. If you can’t push the hockey puck into the goal, you get kicked off the team. If your jokes don’t make people laugh, your career as a stand-up comic is brutally short. If the house you built has a leaky roof, nobody will buy it.
But now we are learning that there is one exception to this rule. If you are a member of the British Parliament and a “Brexiteer” — a cheerleader for Britain’s departure from the European Union — you do not, it seems, pay any price: no price for failure, no price for dishonesty, no price for broken promises.
Just over a year ago, in September 2017, I wrote that the British people were about to be given a very unusual opportunity. The Brexiteers had told them a series of lies, about how easy and profitable it would be for the Britain to leave the European Union. Some of these lies were told with malice and foreknowledge; some were the product of ignorance. In any case, it was already clear, a year ago, that they would eventually be disproved. The politicians would have to take responsibility. The voters could make them pay.
Now the game is up: The British prime minister, Theresa May, returned from her long negotiation with Brussels, which was not at all easy, and she has produced a deal with Europe, which is not at all profitable. This was not a surprise. Any Brexit deal involves bad choices. Either Britain pays an economic price for losing access to markets, or — if Britain stays inside European customs arrangements without helping to set the rules — there is a price to be paid in influence. With an eye on voters’ wallets, May chose the latter. And now — now! — after months of debate and thousands of hours of broadcast news and millions of words — most of the Brexiteers still will not accept their own responsibility for this outcome, the least bad of the bad outcomes on offer.
They still do not want to admit that they misled the British people. They still pretend there is some better, alternate reality. And they are still jockeying for power.
Instead of taking responsibility, they have blamed May — claiming, again falsely, that a different prime minister would get a different deal. That was the background to the vote of no confidence Tuesday night. In the hours leading up to the vote, rumors about possible successors were flying; despite having been proved wrong about almost everything, several of the most ardent Brexiteers still fancy themselves as prime minister.
Though May survived the vote, her victory was hardly convincing: 200 votes to 117 is hardly a great result for a sitting prime minister. After the ballot, the party did not consolidate behind her. Instead, leading Brexiteers immediately called upon her to resign.
No wonder they were angry: Their little show of pique achieved nothing. Some time was wasted. Some bad feelings grew worse. More to the point, the British Parliament is every bit as divided now as it was last week. There is still no viable majority for May’s deal, no viable majority for remaining in the European Union, no viable majority for a “no deal” scenario in which Britain crashes out of its relationships with its most important trading partners. The Conservative Party is divided. The country is divided. And none of the people who created this gridlock are contrite — and, it seems, they never will be.